By Hilary Buckwalter
Hilary Buckwalter has a masters in advocacy and political leadership from the University of Minnesota Duluth. She is a yoga instructor and a stay-at-home mom.
The holiday season means taking time out of our busy schedules to relax and feast with our closest friends and family. Perhaps you are thinking back to the Thanksgiving meal you recently enjoyed — the taste, the sensations, the smells emanating from the kitchen, the post-meal fullness and satiety. Perhaps you are looking forward to Christmas, with all of its delightful candies and cookies.
I too, love holiday meals and this year I have found myself in an exceptional quandary: how to do the holidays with no dairy, soy or gluten.
My six-month-old breast-fed baby has shown unequivocally that when I consume these three foods she becomes irritable, gassy and constipated, until she finally breaks out into a horrendous diaper rash. For almost three months now, I have been dairy-, soy- and gluten-free.
New research shows that everything mothers ingest passes into breast milk. This has led me to become ever-more curious about the correlation between what we eat and our health. Based on what I learned, I also began eating organic, non-genetically modified food as much as possible.
This experience is a small window into a much larger problem in our society: our culture of food, meaning how it is perceived, grown, processed, shipped, stored, bought and eaten. It has led me to ask a multitude of questions, such as: Is it really the dairy my baby is allergic to, or is it something in the milk (antibiotics, growth hormone)? Why are dairy and gluten present in almost every processed food? Is my baby really allergic to soy, or is it something about the way that soy is grown (genetically modified, sprayed with pesticide)? What are pesticides and how are they used? How does eating genetically modified food potentially affect my immune system?
So here's a quick biology lesson.
The seat of our immune system is in our gut. Billions of microbes live there that serve the dual purpose of digesting the food we eat and simultaneously facilitating our body systems to achieve a state of balance and homeostasis as nutrients are distributed and wastes are eliminated. It is a give-and-take kind of deal, and balance rests solely on what kinds of food we put into our bodies. Too much of one thing (processed, refined food — which, by and large, contain pesticides and GMOs) and not enough of another (whole organic fruits and vegetables) can cause a variety of health problems. Left unchecked, they can lead to a chronic systemic breakdown that could manifest as cancer, diabetes or heart disease.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to confirm that in today's America we are killing ourselves twofold; first, through our lack of awareness at how our bodies and immune systems function, and second, by feeding ourselves foods that are overly processed and contaminated by poisons and genetic modification.
When they hear about my new lifestyle, most people ask, "Well, what do you eat then?" I sometimes think in reply, "I know exactly what I am not eating, and I know exactly what I am not feeding my family."
Which leads me back to those holiday meals. How many of us would willingly stand in line at the grocery store to pay for a cart full of contaminated food? How many of us would buy a box labeled "New Flavor" Diabetes, "Fat Free" Cancer or "Better Tasting" Heart Disease? How many of us would knowingly choose produce sprayed with poison and then bring it home and cook it up for our kids? No one. Except that we do. We all do. When we are not aware of what we are buying or where it comes from, we are taking a great risk, embarking on a grand scientific experiment, unwittingly inviting unwanted guests to our family table.
Environmentally, we are also inviting disaster. The soil our lives depend on is fast growing depleted from growing only one kind of crop. Genetically modified organisms are doing untold damage to neighboring non-GMO crops, grasslands and forests. Factory-farmed animals leave slurry ponds and disease in their wake. But the equation remains simple: Modified seed is planted in depleted soil, pests ensue, pesticide is applied, product is fed to cow, cow gets sick, cow get antibiotics, human eats cow, pesticide, antibiotics and genetically modified bacteria, human gut ceases to function normally, human gets sick, doctor applies pharmaceutical to the symptoms, human continues eating as usual. Repeat.
Sometimes when I jump up on my whole, organic-foods soapbox, folks get defensive. They tell me that organic food is too expensive. Some think I'm a food snob. Some say they have no will power. Others say it isn't convenient. Some say that while they are alive, they want to live happy and that means eating whatever they want. Still others knowingly purchase food laden with allergens and pesticide and consume it anyway, shrugging it off with a little bit of apathy, burdened by the weight of the unusable toxic dung heap while the stockholders of Big Pharma and Big Ag continue to reap the rewards.
America is not a healthy country. Little kids are being diagnosed with diabetes. Almost 40 percent of us are obese. It is now nearly a given to be diagnosed with cancer, yet we remain light-years behind in understanding our bodies and our intrinsic connection to the food we eat and the way it is grown, harvested and consumed.
I don't believe that we can put a price on our health. Our health is an investment that either grows or depreciates over time, and the responsibility lies on our dinner plates.
In order to move toward more sustainable health we need to understand the connection between our bodies and the land. Cheaper food is not always better. Unlabeled food is not always safer. Our bodies tell our stories, and I have heard my daughter's story loud and clear.
The transition has not been easy, and yes, I will be tempted by the holiday toffee. But the fact remains that in raising the bar on health and making conscious food choices, I am setting an example for my family and putting good health before my sweet tooth.
This holiday season, I invite you to embark on a different type of experiment. I invite you to be aware of who and what is coming to dinner. I invite you to create meals made out of whole ingredients that are free from toxins, harmful additives and potential allergens. I invite you to care for your family with the food you make and to make your health, and your family's health, a priority.